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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

Introduction to "The Wars of the Lord"

I have been impelled to the publication of this volume by the desire to preserve to the coming generation of Rabbis, teachers in Israel, the history and record of a valiant soldier of the Lord, my father זצ"ל and to communicate to future historians whatever knowledge of the development of Judaism in this country I might possess.

In the furtherance of this purpose, I have thought it proper to add a few words in explanation of certain points that might, at first view, appear rather strange to the reader.

I. It will be noted from the controversial letters contained in this volume that the polemics were mainly with Isaac M. Wise and Dr. Lilienthal, and yet there were other Reform-Rabbis in this country as is well known, and as other letters were published indicate, men who had been prominent in the movement before Wise had even been thought of, and the question very naturally suggests itself why were not they also challenged?

This is readily understood when it is recalled that at so early a period as the first Cleveland Conference and even previous thereto David Einhorn had already gone the whole length of the Reform movement even to the radicalism of today [1914]. More than that, some years before coming to America, while Rabbi in Budapest, he had advocated the abolition of circumcision and was obliged to leave his position on that account. In America, in Baltimore, he had a very small congregation of men who were willing to go with him at once the whole gamut. There was, therefore, nothing to be gained by any controversy with him. Those with him were virtually out of the religious fold and could not be brought back. Moreover, his influence was very limited. Outside of a small circle the name Einhorn was unknown and he, therefore, did but little damage in the cause of Orthodox Judaism. Even in his own city his congregation made no progress in numbers. The great majority of the Jews living in this country at that period were still very conservative.

It was the same with [Leo] Merzbacher [radical Reform rabbi of Temple Emmanuel]. He was a local quantity and outside of his own congregation rather unknown.

The American Jewish horizon was dominated by Isaac M. Wise as Generalissimo with Dr. [Max] Lilienthal as his first aide-de-camp. About this time, that is about the time when the polemics began, Wise was at the beginning of his Reform. He had just abolished Yekum Purkan and Pittum Haktoret and had cut out Bame Madlikin, but otherwise, as far as the general observances or ceremonials were concerned, he, or at least his congregation, was still in the conservative camp. His "Minhag America" as late as the edition of 1861 contained prayers for Tisha B'av and as late as 1866 his temple had services on the second day of Yom Tov. Up to that time, the congregation worshipped with their hats on, and the Talith was worn [and men and women sat separately]. Confirmations were held on Pentecost but the Bar Mitzwah was also celebrated on its day. It was not till the congregation removed to its new temple, corner of Plum and Eighth Streets (Cincinnati), that the more radical measures were carried into effect.

With him the polemics were in place. He might be made to see the error of his ways, might be turned back into the camp of conservatism, and if not this, then others, the plain people who were likely to be led astray would be warned of the far-reaching purpose of these in themselves trifling changes in the ritual--what it was intended they should lead to.

It may not be amiss to say here that Isaac M. Wise was himself far from the radicalism of Einhorn and that of the so-called reformers of this latter day [1914]. So far as known, he never smoked on the Sabbath, in public at least. In fact at one time when complaint was made that the students of the Hebrew Union College smoked on the Sabbath publicly, in the streets, he had a resolution passed by the Board, posted up in the College and published in the "Israelite" that any student who would be found smoking in public on the Sabbath would be expelled from the College. He avoided any gross violation of the dietary laws in public. It is related that when the large building [on the southwest corner of Vine and Third Streets in Cincinnati] (at the time the largest of its kind) built for the clothing house of Heidelbach and Seasongood had been about completed, (1859), they invited a number of their friends to a preliminary view thereof. The two Rabbis, Wise and Lilienthal, were of the company. After an inspection of the building and congratulatory addresses, the company adjourned to the second floor for a collation. Coming to the table, Wise noticed that there were three whole hams thereon; remarking that three hams and two Rabbis did not fit well together, he took up his hat and left at once. He gave the Seder on Pesach and on Hanukkah lit the Hanukkah lights. As he grew older, he himself became more conservatively inclined; had it not been for the pressure exercised upon him by his colleague, Dr. Lilienthal, and a few other Rabbis of radical tendencies, to which was superadded later on the influence of the very radical faculty of the Hebrew Union College, who were constantly advising and pressing for more radical innovations, and had it not been for his inordinate ambition to maintain his position as the leader of the Reform movement in America, he would have retraced his steps to a certain extent or at least have remained in the position which he had held at the time of the consecration of the new temple on Seventh and Plum Streets. In this latter respect, the following Midrash would very well apply to him also:אמר רבא אחר שתפשו הקב"ה לירבעם בבגדו ואמר לו חוזר בך ואני ואתה ובן ישי נטייל בג"ע אמר ליה מי בראש א"ל בן ישי בראש אמר אי הכי לא בעינא "Rabba said, after the Holy One, Blessed Be He, took hold of the garment of Jeroboam and said to him: 'Repent! And you and I and the son of Jesse [David] will walk together in Paradise.' Jeroboam asked, 'Who will lead?' 'The son of Jesse will lead.' Jeroboam said: 'If that is the case, I don't want it.'" (Sanh. 102a).

He was a great lover of Hebrew literature and devoted much of his time to it and not infrequently did I find him, on my visits to his house, poring over some Hebrew book of either casuistic or biblical character. The fact was well known to all the wandering booksellers, who were also the salesmen for their own compositions, that Wise was a ready customer who bought and frequently paid liberally, especially if the author was somewhat of a wit and could speak Torah or relate an apt parable.

Furthermore let it be recorded here that in the period when the Higher Criticism had reached its acme and had carried almost all before it and all who pretended to modern culture and enlightenment became its apostles, at a time when he who dared to express but the slightest doubt as to the correctness of the Higher Criticism in its entirety was made the subject of ridicule and derision, he, Wise, stood out for the divinely inspired character of the five Books of Moses in editorials in his widely circulated paper "The Israelite" and in a book that he wrote to prove it, "Pronaos to Holy Writ."

The Rev. Dr. Max Lilienthal, the Rabbi of the Congregation Bene Israel, stood to all outward appearances on the same platform with Isaac M. Wise and whatever reforms were originated or initiated were generally introduced contemporaneously in both temples. Dr. Lilienthal wrote and published in the "Israelite" (about the period above referred to) many articles bristling with Talmudic excerpts and references (the prolegomena as it were) to show that certain reforms or changes in the ritual or ceremonial advocated or about to be introduced were in strict accordance with Talmudic teaching and therefore perfectly permissible. It was in fact upon this basis of perfect accord with the Talmud that all the reforms or changes advocated at that period by Wise and approved by Lilienthal were based. The early volumes of the "Asmonean", of the "Occident", and even of the "Israelite" clearly demonstrate this. In view of this his position the polemics with him also were clearly justified for the reasons above given.

In truth, however, whilst Wise was quite conservative innately, dreaming only of such changes as would tend to beautify the services in the temple, render them more attractive to the younger generation and lighten, as far as there might be, in his opinion, Talmudic warrant therefor, the burden of the ceremonial law, Lilienthal was very radical in his views. A series of letters that appeared in the Israelite over the signature "Jerome", advocating a reform even more radical that than of Einhorn, were attributed to him.

But the times and circumstances were not favorable to his views, at least in so far as his locality was concerned. Cincinnati Jewry was at that time still very conservative and many of the prominent members of both temples and their families were quite Orthodox, especially so in their households. These had to be reckoned with and they could be moved but slowly. Then again Wise, as already said, was quite conservative and as he was the dominant factor in the Reform movement many of the members of Congregation Bene Israel took their Torah from him and would agree only to such innovations as were sanctioned by him. The letters of Jerome found no echo in the hearts of their Cincinnati readers and were soon forgotten.

There may have been other reasons for his, on the whole, rather passive attitude. His arduous work in Russia with its varied happenings, his early experiences in the United States may have dampened his militant ardor or it may have been that his engrossment in other and private affairs of a more material character left him but little inclination to engage in a religious warfare with his congregation or with his colleague.

Dr. Lilienthal was essentially an aristocrat; his appearance, his manner, bespoke it. His whole being proclaimed odi et profanum vulgus, and access to him, except to the foremost of his members and a few other select mortals, was not readily had. In that also he was the exact opposite of Wise. Still more so was he an academic aristocrat.

In the early days of which we are speaking, trained rabbis, graduates of universities, were rare south of Baltimore and west of Philadelphia. The incumbents of the ministerial positions were mainly Hazzanim, ex-Shohatim, Melamdim, young men who had looked in upon a Yeshivah but found the acquisitions of knowledge of the Torah too onerous a task; and even laymen who for some reason or other sought these positions rather than follow the vocations they were trained to or take up a peddler's pack as did or had done most of their co-religionists. These gentlemen quickly assumed the title Reverend and ere long Reverend Doctor. Wise with his geniality, generous disposition and eagerness to make friends, adherents, followers, for his cause, was very liberal in bestowing the degree of Doctor (which was not specified) upon the few who were too modest or too timid to assume it themselves. An article reviling Orthodoxy and its defenders was sure to be so rewarded.*

*The title became so cheapened that a few of the more scholarly men who did not hole the degree would not alone assume it, but even cast it from them. Thus happening one day, a short time after our arrival in New Orleans, to meet in the street the Rev. James K. Gutheim, the minister of the Portuguese Synagogue, I saluted him and addressed him as Dr. Gutheim. Thereupon he said to me: "Young man! I am plain Mr. Gutheim and no doctor!"

To Cincinnati these gentlemen made pilgrimages. They came in times of plenty when, sure of their position, they sought inspiration from the prophet as to what  might be lopped off from the old prayerbook or how the new one, the "Minhag America", might be introduced; what old customs might be relegated and what new ceremonials to catch the eye and the fancy of their congregants be substituted. They came in times of stress, when their congregation had tired of them for one reason or another and bade them begone, to seek the assistance and recommendations of Wise to other fields. Wise was always at their service. He pointed out to them who sought this counsel the path of Reform and the ways thereto and gave assistance and highly laudatory recommendations (that in most instances proved effective) to those who were in need thereof. Not so Lilienthal; he kept aloof from them; would have nothing in common with this ministerial proletariat whom he in his inmost soul despised for their lack of culture and the elementary character of their scholastic attainments.

About the year 1866 Wise came to the conclusion that another Rabbinical Conference, one which should widen the bounds and limitations set by the first one held in Cleveland, and which he himself had long since passed, would be timely. He discussed the idea with Lilienthal who, as his collaborator in all his reform projects and his colleague in the same city, would naturally be one of the signers to the call. He was sure of the Western ministers; if the Eastern Rabbis would not attend they would get along without them; in fact he preferred that they should not come. Lilienthal, not willing to unite in a conference with the class of ministers above referred to, if it could be at all avoided, did not favor it. They were not ready for it. It would take time to prepare a proper programme of reforms to be initiated in the future to be presented to the conference. Addresses advocating these reforms and setting forth their justification would have to be prepared. They must make sure of a representative attendance that the conclusions and decisions of the conference might be authoritative. He succeeded in having the matter put off for a time but, "aufgeschoben ist night aufgehoben", and a year or so later utterances concerning a conference began to make their appearance in the columns of the "Israelite". Letters from ministers in various parts of the country began to pour in, and a few, from the more prominent ministers, were published. The propaganda was well under way.

Feeling that a conference was unavoidable, Lilienthal roused himself and undertook to bring about one in which the ministers or Rabbis taking part should be his equals, men who had studied at the Yeshibahs and at the universities and had earned their Semichah (Rav, Hattarat Horaah) and their Doctor's Degree by hard and conscientious work. Much private correspondence passed between Lilienthal and the Eastern Rabbis. At first and for a long time no headway was made; the Eastern Rabbis would have none of Wise. He had not acknowledged their greatness; had not asked their cooperation in the preparation of the Minhag America; he had gone his own way, had blazed out a path for himself. Lilienthal persisted and after many and long diplomatic negotiations and many promises that Wise would be deferential and submissive, a conference was arranged to be held in the City of Philadelphia in the fall of 1869. At this meeting Wise agreed not to call together his Western adherents (a project he had not altogether given up and which he brought up time and again in conversations with Lilienthal, and when the conference adjourned, it did so to meet a year later in the City of Cincinnati.

Wise on his return home was not satisfied with himself and very much dissatisfied with the conference. He had not been saluted on entering the meeting hall with shouts of Ave Imperator! as was usually done by his followers; indeed, he had been made to feel that he was not quite the equal of the great luminaries assembled in the city of brotherly love and this was the more noticeable when contrasted with the treatment accorded to his colleague. Lilienthal took his seat among them as one of the elect; what he said was listened to with the greatest attention and deference and he was made much of in every way. Wise felt humbled and four short months later he cut the bond that was to unite Eastern and Western Reform for generations; he issued his call for his Western followers and adherents to meet in conference in Cincinnati in the spring of the following year. There was great rejoicing thereat among the Western ministers; they became, at least in their own eyes, and they were not slow in imparting this impression to their respective congregations, important factors in the progress and development of Reform. The Eastern conference that had been brought about with so much trouble and labor was abandoned forever.

Lilienthal possessed an imposing figure and he made an impressive appearance in the pulpit. To the very last he officiated in cap and gown and Talith even though it became the fashion for Reform-Rabbis to preach bareheaded and in clawhammer and even though his colleague Wise had adopted the new fashion.

As already indicated above Lilienthal had not, despite his radicalism, abandoned his Talmudic studies. I recall that on one occasion when I visited him at his special invitation*, I found him in his study with three of the ponderous volumes of the Talmud on the table before him.

*He was at the time a trustee of the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery and had proposed me for the Professorship of Diseases of Children--which I was called to fill some years later--and it was with regard thereto that he asked me to call on him.

Again it might appear strange, more so in view of what I have said elsewhere, that my father זצ"ל should have officiated in so many congregations in the comparatively short space of fourteen years.

There were good and valid reasons therefor. In the early part of the nineteenth century rabbinical salaries were very small and in many congregations often insufficient for the respectable maintenance of a family. In another congregation there was no field for an active missionary Rabbi, and once convinced of this, nothing could have induced my father to continue in such a position. He believed with his whole heart and soul that even as the prophet in his time, so the Rabbi of today had a mission to the people of Israel and that it was incumbent upon him to preach the word of G-d, and if necessary להגיד לעמי פשעים ולבית יעקב חטאתם without fear or favor, and not content himself with the recitation of old tales or with sermons upon indifferent subjects.

In other congregations enemies, such as have been described further on, arose and made a prolonged tenure impossible.

In matters that were purely personal, concerned himself only as an individual, my father was the most modest of men, his motto being לעולם יהיה אדם ענותן כהלל; the poorest and the lowliest had as free access to him and could command his services as readily as the wealthiest members of his congregations, but when it came to the dignity of his office, to the honor of the Torah, he would not brook the slightest discourtesy or disparagement and never hesitated to speak out plainly and emphatically when this became necessary, even though the offender was the richest of Jewry and the president of the congregation.

How highly he regarded the office of Rabbi is well shown in a letter which he wrote some years before his coming to this country to the officers of a certain congregation that was about to elect a Rabbi, in which he expressed his views as to the qualifications that the incumbent of the office should possess; they are as follows:

1) איש אשר תורת אלהיו בלבו ויראתו קודמת לחכמתו, אשר אין רמיה ברוחו ואין חלקות בשפתיו.

2) איש היודע לדין דין ולהורות את בני ישראל את הדרך ילכו בה כדי שלא יהיו כצאן בלי רועה.

3) איש נקי מכל מום ושמץ דופי, ככהן הגדול מאחיו יהיה לכהן לפניו כל הימים ולא יזיד להקריב אש זרה על מזבחו.

4) איש יודע לדרוש ברבים בלשון צחה בדברים יוצאים מן הלב הנכנסים אל הלב.

5) איש יודע להגיד לאדם ישרו ולהוכיחו על פניו ולהטותו מארחות עקלקלות בדברי חבה ופיום כדברבי חכמים אשר בנחת נשמעים, ולא יהיו בני עדתו נקלים בעיניו לדבר נגדם בגאוה וגדול לבב.

6) איש שונא בצע כמשה, אוהב שלום כאהרן, סבלן כהלל ומקנא קנאת ד' צבאות כפינחס, מטה שכמו לסבול עול התורה ועול הצבור ולא תהיה עדת ישראל עליו לטרח ולמשא.

7) איש אשר לא במרום הרים יחצוב ביתו וגם לא בשפל גגות יהיה גגו.

8) איש אשר מורה לא יעלה בלבו ולא יגור מפני איש להגיד האמת ולא ישא עון "אם לא יגיד". וגם מזה אל ינח ידו מלעבוד עבודת הקודש בבית הספר להשגיח על למוד ילדי בני ישראל לחנכם בתורה ובמצות. וסוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלהים ירא.

  1. A man filled with the knowledge of the Torah; whose fear and love of G-d is even greater than his learning; whose tongue knows not deceit and his lips flattery.

  2. A man who shall know how to decide whatever religious questions may arise so that he can teach the children of Israel the path they must walk in, that they may not be as a flock without a shepherd.

  3. A man of spotless character, elevated in purity above his fellows, who will not dare to bring strange fire into the temple of the G-d of Israel.

  4. A man of clear and fluent speech whose evident sincerity will carry conviction to the hearts of his hearers.

  5. A man who shall know how to praise for deeds well done, and how to reprove the sinner with words of loving kindness so that he may be brought back to the path of duty.

  6. A man who hates gain as did Moses, loves peace as did Aaron, is as tolerant as was Hillel, and as zealous in the service of the Lord as was Phineas, the priest; who bears with love the yoke of the Torah and of the community.

  7. A man who will not set up his house "on the highest of peaks no in the lowest of valleys" (who will not be so filled with pride as to know only the rich, nor so humble as to bring disrespect upon his office, but will be accessible to all rich and poor, and have a kind word and a willing ear even for the humblest of his flock).

  8. A man who knows not fear and dares to speak the truth at all times: who will also take upon himself the higher duty, the supervision of the school and the teaching of the Torah and its commandments to the children of his flock.